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Calvin Henderson Wiley, 1819-1887
Alamance; Or, the Great and Final Experiment
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847.


Calvin Henderson Wiley (3 February 1819-11 January 1887), the first North Carolina native to publish a novel and the state's first superintendent of public education, was born in eastern Guilford County. Wiley's novel Alamance was published in 1847. It is set in North Carolina in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution, and its themes foreshadow Wiley's lifelong devotion to improving public education in North Carolina, promoting Christian piety, and commemorating the early history of his beloved state.

Wiley begins the novel with an amusing, fictional preface by "Horace Lockwitter, of New York." This preface is a valuable piece of social satire and an interesting self-portrait of Wiley in its own right. Wiley uses the character of Lockwitter to poke fun at outsiders who see North Carolina as a backwater of civilization. Lockwitter is pleasantly surprised to discover that North Carolinians are "neither Cannibals, Salamanders, nor Fire-eaters, nor even Pagans . . . Men and women generally dressed after the European fashion, lived in houses with chimneys, and ate three times a-day, though at very unusual hours. . . ."

At the same time, however, Wiley's Lockwitter offers telling comments about North Carolina's lack of economic and social development, notably the dearth of towns, the scourge of drunkenness, and the paucity of literature. Lockwitter spends some time in a village (Oxford, North Carolina) and meets an attorney (Wiley) who wishes to write a book about North Carolina, but despairs of ever producing it in the midst of a community of uneducated country bumpkins. The author does not wish to write a fantastical work of fiction to pander to the common tastes, but he feels there would be little interest in a straightforward history of North Carolina. Lockwitter counsels the author to create a historical novel and sets the scribe to his task. Alamance is the product of this mandate.

Alamance opens on the eve of the Revolutionary War in a small village in eastern Guilford County—a site that was made famous by the Battle of Alamance in 1771. That battle was a climactic confrontation between the Regulators, a group of North Carolina farmers opposed to new government rules, and the militia of royal governor Tryon. In the novel, Hector McBride, an itinerant schoolmaster from Philadelphia, wanders into the village and decides to set up a school. McBride's teenage students become the major characters in the novel: Henry Warden, the hero; Edith Mayfield, the heroine; Will Glutson, the villain; and Ben Rust, Henry's loyal friend.

In first section of the novel, Wiley offers sketches of the backcountry life and customs, as well as commentary on the importance of the church and school to the community. Wiley devotes several chapters to McBride's pedagogy and style of discipline and the students' reaction to him. They revere their teacher, but they also engage in the pre-commencement tradition of "turning out" the teacher, a kind of mock rebellion.

With both graduation and the outbreak of war looming, Henry and Edith fall in love. Edith's father, however, forbids their marriage because he is a loyalist and Henry and his family support the rebellion. Henry's patriotism also rouses the ire of an even more ardent loyalist, the Tory Will Glutson. At the school commencement, Henry delivers a stirring patriotic speech, which enrages Alan Ross, a royal official and family friend of Glutson. Ross demands Henry be arrested for his treason, but Henry escapes to join the rebel militia.

The novel then jumps ahead several years. The Revolutionary War is in progress and Ross and Glutson are both fighting for the British while Henry, Ben Rust, and other minor characters have become Continental soldiers and militiamen. Edith's father has become a wavering loyalist who tries to accommodate his rebel neighbors. Edith, while on a mission of mercy, is apparently killed. Henry is devastated by the news of Edith's demise, and he refuses another woman who falls in love with him.

The scene shifts yet again across time and geography to Fayetteville, North Carolina, a Loyalist stronghold. Glutson has brought a mysterious female captive to town as a "gift" to his friend Alan Ross. The captive turns out to be Edith, and he is on the brink of a forced marriage to Ross when Ben Rust arrives to rescue her and bring her to home Alamance and to Henry. Ross follows close on their heels, catches up, and attacks. When Ross is killed, the party discovers a life history and confessions of sins, which he had been carrying with him.

Edith and Rust, who have been joined by McBride, reunite with Henry on the road to Alamance. The happy party has almost reached home when British forces on their way to the pivotal Battle of Guilford Court House capture them. After the battle, Lord Cornwallis is forced to retreat back to his stronghold at Yorktown, Virginia, where he soon surrenders to Washington. In the meantime, Henry and company are able to return home, whereupon the victorious patriots promptly punish Glutson and the other Loyalists.

Edith's father dies soon thereafter, so the way finally seems clear for Edith and Henry to marry. However, Wiley places several final romantic obstacles in their way. In addition, Wiley inserts a long and seemingly unrelated final section in which McBride and Henry journey to discover the fate of a friend wronged by Ross. The mission serves as the excuse for McBride and Henry to engage in long debates about literature, piety, education, and the future of democracy. Though the novel contains similar dialogues, Wiley presents his own views through Henry.

Alamance and Wiley's second novel, Roanoke (1849), earned little critical notice and enjoyed only moderate success, but in gathering material for the novels, Wiley developed a passion for promoting North Carolina history to its citizens. In addition, what recognition the novels did receive helped to establish a statewide reputation for Wiley, which later secured his election as state superintendent of common schools in 1852.

Michael Sistrom

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